- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

MESA, Ariz. It didn't take long for Dusty Baker to get a taste of the lovable losing legacy of the Chicago Cubs.

At one of the first exhibition games of spring training, after the manager watched his new team go down in order on three ground balls, Baker heard someone in the stands yell, "Typical Cubs rally."

The Cubs went 67-95 last season in the National League Central Division, and have lost 90-plus games in four of their last six seasons, but remain one of the most popular baseball teams in America. They regularly fill their historic ballpark, Wrigley Field, although they have not won a World Series since a decade before World War I or a National League pennant since the end of World War II, and in the past 20 years have made three brief appearances in the postseason.

Why bother winning? One general manager who interviewed for a front office job with the Cubs came away with the impression that the organization feared if it actually became a winning franchise a championship team the old lovable Cubs would no longer satisfy their loyal, devoted fan base.

If that seems a little conspiratorial, the reality was that among baseball men, the Cubs did not seem particularly upset about being losers. Baker could see that from the dugout where he managed the San Francisco Giants for 10 seasons, finishing first or second in the National League West in each of the last six seasons, including taking the Anaheim Angels to seven games in last year's World Series.

"The perception from the outside was they seemed satisfied here with years of losing," Baker said. "They seemed to accept it. There was a complacency here."

Changing all that is one of Baker's primary objectives in his first year as manager of the Cubs. He signed a four-year, $15 million deal with the Tribune Co., the owners of the franchise. Baker has to convince not just fans but players that winning and the pressure to win is more fun than settling for losing.

"You have to change the mindset of the players, the fans, the town," Baker said. "I've heard it for years, and I hear it now a lot of negative thoughts, negative energy. You hear about what they haven't done, all the years they have lost, and no matter how they start, they are going to fail.

"Now, a lot of guys have gone through here thinking they would be the guy to change it. I'm not any different. But when I got to the Giants, I heard the same thing there about a 'June swoon.' I haven't heard about a 'June swoon' there for years now. I don't want to hear about the Cubs being the lovable losers."

There is a cautious optimism about the Cubs, primarily because they have one of the highest-rated farm systems in baseball, and some promising young players on their roster. Among them are pitcher Mark Prior, who pitched just nine minor league games before coming up last year and going 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA, and center fielder Corey Patterson, who as a 22-year-old rookie last year hit 30 doubles, 14 home runs, drove in 54 runs, scored 71 runs and stole 18 bases in 153 games.

"They are still kids," Baker said. "Hopefully, we can move them along and they can get it together quickly. But you have to have patience with them."

Then, of course, there is the force of nature that occupies right field at Wrigley and creates excitement, if not winning, every time he steps to the plate Sammy Sosa. The Cubs' slugger, who won the NL home run crown last year with 49 homers and hit 64, 50, 63 and 66 the four seasons before that, had made it a habit of arriving late for spring training. This year, with 499 career home runs, he reported to Cubs camp in Mesa on time.

Sosa has had nothing but good things to say about his new manager. "He is a great manager," Sosa said. "He know how to win, and he knows how to get the respect of players."

Despite Sosa's enthusiasm, there already has been some controversy surrounding his future in Chicago. Now in third year of a four-year, $70.5 million deal (with a club option for a fifth year), Sosa has a clause in his contract that allows him to test the free agent market if he so desires. When asked about whether he intends to take advantage of that clause, Sosa has said he will make his decision after the season is over making this year, for all intents and purposes, a negotiating year for Sosa.

But whatever headaches Sosa may present for Baker, they are nothing compared to the clubhouse he had to manage in San Francisco, particularly keeping Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent from killing each other, as witnessed by their dugout brawl last year.

"Sammy and Barry are both thoroughbreds, and you have to let them run," Baker said. "You can't put a bridle on them. You leave them alone, get their respect, and respect them, and they will put it on themselves. So far Sammy has been great."

Even a young pitcher like Prior notices the difference in the clubhouse under Baker.

"Not everyone was pulling 100 percent for each other last year," he said. "This year guys are talking more and getting along better. I see better chemistry in here."

Baker, 53, is coming off a strange season with the Giants. In the final year of his contract, he found himself out of a job after taking San Francisco to the World Series because of a personality clash with owner Peter Magowan. It capped a bizarre season that began with Baker recovering from prostate cancer surgery and ended in a seventh-game loss in the series.

"It was an emotional adjustment for me all year, starting from my cancer diagnosis last November to my operation and other life things," he said. "Also, it was my option year, my free agent year, and I wanted to go out on top. It was all kind of a blur. It wasn't as nearly as happy as it should have been. You would think it would have been one of the happiest times of my life. It was such an up and down emotional time, though happiness, sadness, anger, it was all there."

Baker said he wound up with the Cubs by choice, but also encountered what he outlined was a misinformation campaign against his chances for other managing jobs with the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets.

"They were told in New York that I had no interest, and I just heard that recently," Baker said. "I heard in Seattle that my personality was too strong, that they wanted someone with less of a strong personality after Lou [Piniella], or that I wasn't a good company man, that my management style wasn't conducive."

Then there was the report that surfaced while Baker was looking for a job that he owed more than $1 million in taxes in a dispute with the IRS. He said that dispute had been settled long ago, and was part of an agreement he had reached with the IRS about some bad investments he had made. Baker believes the story was leaked as part of this campaign.

"It was as if someone was trying to keep me from working anywhere," he said.

The Cubs, after firing Don Baylor, were more than willing to hire a three-time National League Manager of the Year, with a career managing record of 840-715. They don't get too many managers with winning records in a Cubs uniform. Baker has no intention of changing those numbers to a losing record.

"I am used to being in the hunt, first or second, throughout my playing and managing career," he said, also referring to his 19-year playing career, including three World Series. "So I am spoiled by winning, or at least having the opportunity to win."

What he has to do now is reverse a franchise that is spoiled by losing, and perhaps fears the opportunity to win.

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